Rev. William Barber: Jazzman for Justice

Courtesy of Flickr user Hans Kundnani via Creative Commons

Rev. William Barber’s faith grows out of the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801, part of the Second Great Awakening. In his new book, Barber notes that the descendants of that revival were active participants in the post-Reconstruction Fusion Party, in which poor whites and formerly enslaved African Americans stood together against the tyranny of white-supremacist Democrats in North Carolina.

thirdreconthumbIt happens that fusion also characterized the emergent jazz music of the late 19th century. Jazz arose from a fusion of different musical forms, including slave songs, spirituals, blues, ragtime, European folk music and opera. This new creative concoction originated in Louisiana where Creole culture was prominent. There French colonizers had intermarried with Native Americans, African Americans and the Spanish, creating an unprecedented zone of intercultural interaction.

The historical fact of racial and cultural mixing opens a window to understanding what jazz originally was: An essentially intercultural and, therefore, subversive phenomenon. Like jazz, fusion politics is an impressive blend of different political styles that is capable of confronting conservative extremists and creating new forms of cooperation.

In addition to sharing common cultural roots with jazz music, fusion politics also uses jazz music’s principle of improvisation—innovation through collaboration. Jazz musicians study the tradition through practicing the “standards,” so they can make new music for a new moment. We hear this dynamic in John Coltrane’s 1961 rendering of “My Favorite Things,” the classic show tune that Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music. In a musical conversation with Richard Rodgers, Coltrane deepens the musical tonality of the piece, propelled by a bebop rhythm and colored with a blues sensibility. At the start of the revolutionary sixties, Coltrane’s interpretation of “My Favorite Things” expresses the tragedy and triumph of the black freedom struggle. Against the stubborn scourge of white supremacy, Coltrane invokes the favorite things that keep black people whole in a fearful and fragmented America.

A jazzman for justice, Barber riffs on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for a “revolution of values.” Through his electrifying preaching and faith-rooted fusion organizing, Barber is mobilizing a moral revolution of values to bring out the best in America’s democracy. When Barber encounters resistance, he improvises, writing: “Movements teach you to make plans and then remake them on the go…the art of improvisation is about negotiating the unexpected.”

The “moral music” that he and his comrades in struggle are making is wonderful music indeed.

See here for Peter Laarman’s interview with Rev. William Barber, and here for the full range of responses.